The original “Planet of the Apes” was built around a startling premise: what if the roles of apes and humans were reversed?
Back in 1968, Charleton Heston and Company rode this posit all the way to a twist ending that ranks as one of the all-timers.
Several early ’70s sequels and one disappointing Tim Burton remake later, we’re two movies into a prequel series that is breathing exciting new life into the franchise. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011) featured a compelling back story and some impressive motion capture special effects. Now, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” hits theaters with the same strengths, though it feels like it’s still reaching for a chord to match the authority of the first film. “Dawn” is a very good movie, but it feels like it could have been a great one.
“Dawn” is set 10 years after the events of “Rise.” Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the other genetically enhanced super-apes have established a colony in the woods north of the Golden Gate Bridge, staying on the sidelines while an epidemic of simian flu wipes out most of human civilization. But now a group of survivors has gathered in San Francisco, hoping to get the human race back on its feet. To do so, they have to cross into ape territory to fix a hydroelectric dam that will turn the power grid back on.
The survivors have two options. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) harbors a deep distrust of the apes and favors a military solution to the problem. Option two comes from Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who convinces Dreyfus to allow a small party (including Malcolm and his girlfriend Ellie, played by Keri Russell) into the woods to try a diplomatic approach first.
Tensions run high, but Caesar cautiously decides to trust Malcolm and the humans. This eventually leads to a rift with Koba (Toby Kebbell), a scarred ape with vivid memories of his time in human testing labs. He’s the ape foil to Dreyfus, and no one is surprised when the best-laid plans of mice, men and apes go astray.
This all leads to some vivid, action-packed clashes between man and monkey. The visuals in “Dawn” are simultaneously the film’s greatest strength and weakness. The forest scenes, shot in British Columbia, are absolutely gorgeous, and they are matched by an equally impressive interpretation of post-apocalyptic San Francisco.
Unfortunately, some excellent CGI motion capture work on the apes in some scenes is counteracted by some weak shots in other scenes. We’re still a far cry from the stiff prosthetics of the early Planet of the Apes movies, but often it’s still quite obvious that we’re watching computer-generated characters. And while that’s not enough to submarine the entire film, it can make complete immersion difficult.
Speaking of which, “Dawn” is available in 3-D. But don’t bother; it’s hard to think of a recent film where the ticket premium is more useless.
Luckily, for all its attention to special effects, “Dawn” falls more into the “Godzilla” category of blockbusters, taking its time and building suspense before delivering the payoff, rather than hammering the audience with a constant barrage of Transformers-style CGI mayhem. “Dawn” clearly respects the intelligence of its audience.
At times, though, the suspense feels undermined by the narrative tone of the film, which, in order to focus on the dysfunctional relationship between humans and apes, spends a lot of time humanizing Caesar and Company. Moments that might be more disturbing or frightening (The apes are riding horses! The apes can SPEAK!) carry less of a wallop as a result. We almost know them too well to really be scared.
Then again, maybe that’s the point. Director Matt Reeves doesn’t want to thrill or frighten us so much as he wants us to see how distrust and duplicity lead to tragedy and death, and that the blame falls on everyone’s shoulders.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is rated PG-13 for various scenes of action violence, as well as some profanity (including one use of the F-word).
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.